A year into his job as UK environment secretary, has Michael Gove given us hope or hyperbole? David Burrows weighs in.
On July 9, David Davis and Boris Johnson – the Brexit secretary and foreign secretary respectively – both resigned, as neither felt they could back the EU exit plan thrashed out at Chequers the week before. Surely it was only a matter of time before Michael Gove, the environment secretary and fellow Brexiteer, also jumped ship? At time of writing, though, he is still there – in high spirits and “absolutely not” thinking of resigning, according to Sky News. By the time you read this, he might have changed his mind; a joke going around Westminster says Gove would be the one to pick in a penalty shootout, as you think he’s going to go one way and he goes the other.
Politics is not a game, Theresa May said when she took office. The comment was most likely made with Gove front of mind – a man who, at the time, had been banished to the backbenches following a failed leadership bid and the bloody political backstabbing of Johnson. Still, a year later, he was hauled off the substitutes bench and thrust back into the game. His reinstatement was less surprising than the position – environment secretary.
Putting Michael Gove in charge of Defra is “much like putting a wolf in charge of the chicken coop”, reflected Ed Davey, the former energy and climate change secretary who worked with Gove in the Coalition cabinet. “We know he has a natural inclination to reduce regulation. This could endanger efforts to reduce air pollution or protect habitats if he fails to keep the protections on which we rely.”
A year on, how has Gove done? Has he given the environmental movement hope, or should we remain cautious?
Defra ran a blog to mark the anniversary, including seven “key pieces of work” achieved in the past 12 months. These include: the 25-year environment plan; a consultation to reform farm support; the ban on plastic microbeads and consultations on other single-use plastics; the appointment of a “tree champion” and funding to “kickstart the Northern Forest”; setting up a food and drink sector council to “champion the interests of Britain’s biggest manufacturing sector”; the Ivory Bill to tackle the illegal ivory trade; legislation for mandatory CCTV in English abattoirs; and the publication of a clean air strategy. There was also a quote from Gove, who said: “I truly believe that our departure from the EU, with the right decisions, can enhance our natural environment. I look forward to continuing this work in the year ahead.”
There is little doubt the environment secretary has been busy: he is mentioned in 94 announcements on the Defra website, almost two a week. His predecessor, Andrea Leadsom, managed just 38 in a similar length of time. As early as November 2017, Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven was reportedly moved to suggest that Gove had “defied many people’s expectations on the environment”. Even George Monbiot, the environmental campaigner and Guardian columnist, said Gove was “saying the things I’ve waited for years for an environment secretary to say”.
However, with the publication of the government’s 25-year environment plan, those pats on the back quickly turned to kicks up the backside. “I admit it: I was conned by Michael Gove’s rhetoric,” Monbiot tweeted on 11 January. “This ‘plan’ of his is pathetic.” Libby Peake, an expert at environmental think tank Green Alliance, summed up the tenor: the prime minister’s words had been bold, Peake noted in a blog, but “looking at the document itself, the language is rather less bold”.
“Most targets are kicked way into the long grass of 2030, 2040 or 2050”
Consider the summary of targets in the plan. Most are kicked way into the long grass of 2030, 2040 or 2050 (for example “working to a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042”), while many others are not really targets, with no benchmark and little clarity (such as “reversing the loss of marine biodiversity and, where practicable, restoring it”). Some even do both – “making sure that all policies, programmes and investment decisions take into account the possible extent of climate change this century”. There has been similar criticism of the clean growth strategy, with the Climate Change Committee (CCC) finding “few new detailed policies to reduce UK emissions into the next decade and beyond”.
This reminded me of a piece I wrote back in 2012 about how decent sustainability targets can be set. I looked back through my notes and came across this advice from one very experienced consultant: “The ambition of targets is all about the context. What do you want to achieve? How strategically important is the issue? How likely are you to drive significant change? What role will a target play in this? How easy is it? If you have the power, and the momentum, then set ambitious targets. If you don’t, or the organisation has a culture of penalising failure, then temper the targets (but not the ambition).” He then listed 10 top tips, two of which were: choose a mix of easier and harder targets to achieve, and have some quick wins to demonstrate success.
Gove has certainly ensured his ‘to do’ list is top heavy with easy stuff: plans to ban plastic straws being a “typical example of picking off the low-hanging fruit when it comes to tackling environmental problems”, according to Green MEP Molly Scott Cato. In fact, action on ivory trade, a U-turn on holding another vote on fox hunting and a promise to ban bee-harming neonicotinoids have all been distractions from bigger headaches such as fracking, renewables, climate change and Brexit.
This year marked a decade since the Climate Change Act came into force. In June, the CCC published a progress update. There has been a “rapid reduction” in emissions in the electricity sector, but this achievement “masks a marked failure to decarbonise other sectors, including transport, agriculture and buildings”, the experts said (the environment plan commits the government to further greenhouse gas emission cuts from agriculture, but doesn’t say how or by how much). The update warned that this stagnation means the UK is not on course to meet the fourth (2023-2027) or fifth (2028-2032) carbon budgets and calls the next year “crucial”.
A betting man wouldn’t put money on Gove being in his post this time next year, taking us beyond the UK’s separation from the EU. Since the government agreed its Brexit plans, Gove has been its go-to man to defend this apparently softer, greener Brexit. A white paper has been published to set out the plans, offering environmentalists hope – a desire to see the EU and UK “commit to non-regression of environmental standards” is significant. It will take time to unpick the details of the 104-page document, but at least environmental regulations remain firmly on the radar for negotiators.
It must never be forgotten that one of Gove’s major achievements has been to give Defra a voice in the cabinet. He’s behind the green Brexit message that is being plugged by all his colleagues, and he has even managed to get a commitment (not to mention the funding and staff) to deliver a new resources and waste strategy. Indeed, in his first speech as environment secretary, he talked of a “government of global Britain” that would not just be an advocate for freer trade but also a “champion of sustainable development, an advocate for global social justice, a leader in environmental science, a setter of gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital, an innovator in clean, green growth and an upholder of the moral imperative to hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition than we inherited it”.
Can he deliver that? Asked on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show whether the new Brexit plans were all he had hoped for, Gove said: “No, but then I’m a realist.” This concerns me. A realist is someone who accepts a situation and is prepared to deal with it accordingly. Gove has already taken this stance in the Whitehall battle over the new environmental watchdog, with the Treasury reportedly managing to water down the proposals in the Environmental Principles and Governance Bill to ensure environmental regulations are loose enough so as not to torpedo trade deals with the likes of the US. This begs the question: if Gove is for turning once again, this time from political Pollyanna to pragmatist, is our environment better left in the hands of someone else?
David Burrows is a freelance journalist
Photography | PA